This is an ongoing list of the best places I’ve visited, sorted by location, but in no particular order. I’ve included links when I’ve written a relevant post.
Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam, Netherlands: This is definitely out of the way of the main tourist area in Amsterdam, as it’s located in the University of Amsterdam, in the outskirts of the city (take the metro), but if you’re interested in medical history or genetic abnormalities, it’s well worth seeking out. The Dutch are famously pioneers in the field of tissue preservation (most particularly Frederick Ruysch, whose only existing preparations are in far-off St. Petersburg), and Vrolik carried on the proud tradition. If you like body parts in jars as much as I do (which is probably unlikely, admittedly) you’ll love this place. I recall it being pretty hard to find on the campus (down a random hallway I think), but at least some of the receptionists should speak English, so you’ll be able to find your way there eventually.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Let me preface this by saying that I’m certainly no art critic. I like art, but I don’t know much about art theory or art history, and it’s probably going to stay that way since there’s so many other types of history that I find much more interesting. So even though this is probably an unfashionable opinion, I love Van Gogh. He is my favourite artist, and I figure his paintings are popular for a reason, namely, they do strike a chord within all of us. The Van Gogh museum is incredible, albeit emotionally draining. I spent my entire time inside being amazed by all the beauty he saw in the world, and as the museum is set up chronologically, by the time I got to his final paintings and suicide, even though obviously I knew it was coming, I was actually in tears. Stunning, and even braving worth the lengthy queues.
Dr. Guislain Museum, Ghent, Belgium: This is a museum on the history of psychiatry inside a working mental institution. But it’s actually so much more. They have a stunning collection of modern art (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like most modern art), and other medical exhibits in a cavernous and seemingly unending series of rooms. And if you’re already in Belgium, you can enjoy the many regional gastronomic delights, like chocolate, waffles, frites, and my beloved Floris Ninkeberry lambic, so I really don’t think you need an excuse to come here.
Ijzertower, Diksmuide, Belgium: There are numerous museums devoted to WWI throughout Belgium, but of the ones I’ve visited, this is the best. It’s housed inside a 22 story tower, with exhibits on almost all the floors, including recreations of trenches and bunkers. The museum is all from a Flemish perspective, which is a unique viewpoint that you won’t find in other museums here.
Capuchin Crypts, Rome, Italy: So basically a bunch of Capuchin monks decided it would be a good idea to mummify their bodies after they died, and put them up on display. You won’t hear any complaints from me, because the displays are incredible. This place is run by a mega-strict lady (no photography means NO photography, and the “donation” is not voluntary), but if you keep those things in mind, you’ll do just fine. And they do sell excellent postcards, so even though you can’t take your own photos, you can still take a picture home to remember them by,
Cinque Terre, Italy: This is not a museum or anything, just a region of Italy, but I love it! There’s really nothing to do here except eat (and go on the hike through the five villages which everybody but me seems to do, but I’m there to vacation, not to tax myself unduly under the hot, hot sun. Jeez.), but for me, that + a good supply of books is enough. You must get the pesto focaccia from the second focacceria up the hill in Riomaggiore, as it is probably my favourite food on earth, and don’t pass up the gelato or trofie al pesto either.
Kerry County Museum, Tralee, Ireland: I only visited this museum because I read they had a recreation of a medieval village, and I don’t regret that decision at all. Most of the museum is devoted to the history of Kerry County and Ireland, illustrated throughout with interactive things and historical wax figures, but the whole lower level is Medieval Ireland, and take it from me, that is where you want to be. They did indeed have appropriately unpleasant authentic smells, and even more wax figures inside, along with mock shops, churches, and other relevant buildings. I ended up walking through twice because I loved it so much. They’re really taken an ordinary local museum above and beyond with their thoughtful re-creation. And I believe the admission charge was pretty modest, maybe 5-6 euros.
Slovenian Technical Museum, Bistra, Slovenia: The main draw for me was Tito’s car collection, but the museum actually has much more to offer than that. Housed in a sprawling former monastery, exhibits cover all of Slovenia’s traditional industries, from bee-keeping and carpentry, to hunting and engineering. A good (and cheap) day out.
Gnome Reserve, Devon: Run by a true eccentric (she even features in a book titled English Eccentrics), this place is so bizarre it sort of defies description. It’s basically a massive collection of gnomes grouped together in their natural habitat of the forest. They’re arranged in many weird tableaux, including sunbathing, picnicking, and of course, astronaut gnomes in their “GNASA” rocket. You’re required to wear a gnome hat when you walk through so as not to disturb the gnomes (don’t worry, Ann will provide you with one). There is also a pixie hunt through a garden, and a shop selling Ann’s gnome related pictures and sculptures. You really have to experience this one to believe it.
Thackray Museum, Leeds: This museum features all the things I hold dear: authentic smells, a recreation of an historic street with wax mannequins, and lots of gory medical history. Wander through the dank streets of 1840s Leeds and find out what disease you would have died from, whilst breathing deeply of the turd and smoke fumes, and emerge to watch an animatronic amputation and try your hand at being a Victorian surgeon. The building its housed in is rather creepy and magnificent itself, and you get free admission for a year after paying for your first visit and filling out a Gift Aid form, which is a great deal in my book, and I don’t even live in Leeds. A must-see!
Forbidden Corner, North Yorkshire: If you like fun, you need to visit this place! It’s ostensibly a maze, but is really so much more, combining follies, sexy statues, Hell, a haunted house, and lots and lots of surprises. It’s billed as a family attraction, but I honestly think anyone willing to brave the steep, slippery steps and narrow passageways will love it. I mean, it’s so weird and mysterious, I don’t know what else to say, just go!
Eyam Plague Village and Museum, Eyam, Derbyshire: Eyam was completely decimated by a 1665 outbreak of plague, which ultimately wiped out a third of the village population. The memory of the victims lives on in this well-preserved village, including a nice local museum, a church with a commemorative stained glass window, and the cottages where the plague began.
Jorvik Viking Centre, York: Yes, it’s cheesy and overpriced, but where else can you ride through a village of animatronic Vikings, including one taking a dump (naturally, with appropriate odours)? Enough said.
Hell-fire Caves, High Wycombe: This makes a great day-trip destination from London, and you can even get in a visit to the chair making museum while you’re there (which I have yet to visit). The infamous Hellfire Society used to meet (and possibly have orgies, but definitely play pranks on each other involving monkeys) in these caves, and they’re also reputed to be haunted, so you really can’t lose. It’s a low-key operation; you buy a token in the gift shop and put it in a turnstile for entry on a self-guided tour, which is accompanied with sound effects and terrible wax figures, including one of Ben Franklin, and of the aforementioned baboon. I visit a lot of caves, and these are the best in England I’ve seen yet (though as a tourist attraction, not in terms of the quality of the caves themselves, as I believe these are man-made).
Under the Pier Show, Southwold: An excellent collection of home-made arcade machines, each more bizarrely amusing than the last. This is simply great fun, and the patch of seaside next to the pier isn’t too shabby either. You must visit and experience it yourself!
Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle: Located in an insanely picturesque village, this museum tells the story of witchcraft in Britain, which is rather depressingly typically a history of persecution, but also features some slightly more light-hearted displays, like a replica of a wise woman’s cottage, and a room devoted to amulets and charms, which includes a number of phallic stones.
Hunterian Museum, London: I’ve probably been to this museum more often than any other one in London, and yet I keep coming back. It’s the stuff in jars, not to mention the small collection of human oddities, and the small but excellent display on WWI plastic surgery techniques that draw me there. I got the idea for my Master’s thesis whilst wandering through here, so I’ll always have a fondness for the place. It’s located in Lincoln’s Inn Fields across from John Soane’s House (which is also a great place to visit), and they’re both free and have similar opening hours, so you could probably make a day of it.
Dennis Severs’ House, London: Another “hidden gem” as they say, this one is a bit trickier to visit as you have to book in advance (and it’s rather pricy), but is well worth the trouble, in my opinion. It’s a beautiful Georgian home which aims to create the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time, and the inhabitants of the home must have just stepped out of the room before you entered. To this effect, it uses sound effects, authentic smells (mostly cloves), and dim lighting, and you’re asked to tour the house in silence. Definitely do the candlelight tour if you can; it’s much more atmospheric.
Gordon Museum, London: This medical museum isn’t generally open to the public, so if you get a rare chance to visit, take it! Far more extensive than the Hunterian, with tumour paintings, wax models, and an endless array of jarred specimens, this museum, part of Guy’s Campus at King’s, is designed primarily for teaching medical students, but will appeal to anyone interested in medicine, or the history thereof.
Wellcome Collection, London: Across the street from Euston Station, the Wellcome is home to some small permanent exhibits that house the rest of Henry Wellcome’s collection (they’ve sold most of the rest of it off, and donated some things to the Science Museum, which are on the well-hidden 4th and 5th floors, accessed by lifts at the front of the building, if you fancy going), but where it really shines is in its temporary exhibits. The past few years have seen them tackle subjects ranging from hygiene, death, psychiatry, identity, and dissections, and the standard is always excellent. They also have a really good bookshop which has lots of hard to find medical history titles and other neat things.
Hampton Court, Surrey: Henry VIII’s palace is pretty well known, but it’s one of the places I always find myself bringing visitors because it’s massive, and awesome. It’s easy to get lost in here, and not just in the maze (sadly, I once actually got lost on my way to visit the maze, so poor is my sense of direction) so I take a systematic approach and tackle it section by section to make sure I’ve seen everything. They usually have special exhibitions on, which are generally of a high calibre, and the various monarchs’ apartments are lavishly decorated and rumoured to be haunted. Do yourself a favour and pick up a 2 for 1 voucher from a train station or online if you’re travelling there via National Rail, as it’s quite expensive otherwise.
Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland: Another large and excellent medical museum, if you’re not tired of reading about them by now. They have an entire separate room on dentistry, which for some reason freaked me out in a way other surgical stuff never does (I blame the years of braces), and a large hall hidden in the back of the museum which housed most of the specimens and a ton of interesting captions and facts. I only had a couple hours here, as they were closing, but I could have spent another hour easily, I think.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh: Picture if you will (and if you’ve been to these places) the NHM, British Museum, V&A, and the Museum of London all rolled into one, and housed under one enormous roof, and you’ll have some idea what the National Museum of Scotland is like. The building itself reminded me of the Crystal Palace (well, judging from pictures, obviously I’ve never been since it burned down in like the ’30s), which is always a plus, and was so crammed full of interesting stuff I had to come back two days in a row (and still didn’t really see it all). There was the equivalent of an entire large museum devoted just to Scottish history, and sections elsewhere on everything from the history of objects, natural history, cultural history, and more. A fantastic place, with something for everyone.
Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Now, I throw around the word favourite a lot on this page, but this is actually my favourite of all the museums I’ve been to thus far. Anywhere. The entire collection is essentially of medical oddities, including a soap lady, an insanely massive colon, and Chang and Eng’s liver, and they don’t waste your time with too much filler (diseased toes in jars, animal specimens, etc.) like some other medical museums do. Plus when I was there, which was about 6 years ago, they had an awesome exhibit on the secret operations of the presidents, which is right up my alley, since I am a nerd for presidential history in addition to medical history. Just perfect.
FDR’s Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York: And speaking of presidential history…there are too many things I love about this place to mention here (not least of all the various statues, and being in the proximity of things FDR actually touched!), so let me direct you to my lengthy post on it if you want more info.
Museum of Everyday Life, Glover, Vermont: Don’t let the fact that it’s housed in an abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere put you off. It is eccentric and amazing in the most quotidian way.
Bread and Puppet Theater, Glover, Vermont: Also in Glover (and from some of the same people who bring us the Museum of Everyday Life), this place may haunt your dreams, but tiptoeing through a dark, creaky shed full of giant looming puppets is an experience probably worth any resulting nightmares.
Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio: I am from Cleveland, so I may be a bit biased, but this is my favourite cemetery. This is where I’d like to be buried someday (though hopefully not for a long while!) because it is beautiful and creepy simultaneously. I love Garfield’s monument; gorgeous interior, and him and his wife’s coffins are still just hanging out in the basement, right there for all to see. If you go up on the roof, you have a perfect view of downtown Cleveland on a clear day. The Haserot Angel is also there, and majorly creeps me out, so is worth a look too. I always forget what section he’s in, but I think it’s one of the single digit ones in the older part of the cemetery, and I always somehow stumble on it just when I’ve given up looking, which freaks me out even more. If you watch Doctor Who, this angel will give you nightmares for sure.
Stan Hywet, Akron, Ohio: Even though I suspect the Christmas event here is intended to be family oriented, I’m a child-free adult, and I adore it. It’s quite pricy, so if you have a student ID or any other means of getting a discount, use it, but for a once a year visit, I don’t mind shelling out so much. They put up a ton of lights, and decorate interior of the mansion and greenhouse with a different theme each year, so you can keep coming back. They do house tours year round, and have other various car and craft show type events going on from time to time, but the Christmas one is the best.